On any typical sunny summer Sunday in June, hundreds of roller skaters flock to Central Park to dance away sultry afternoons to the grooves of the ebullient DJs rocking the Central Park Skate Circle. Thousands more come to watch the skaters. Several years ago on one June Sunday, June 15, 1997 to be exact, the spectators came to watch the skaters just as they always had, but this time it was different. Not a spin or a skate or a toe stop to be found anywhere on the horizon.
Those in the know knew that that day the skaters were all spectators, and the spins, skates and toe stops were all to be found at the Roxy celebrating the wedding of Lezly Ziering, 72, owner of the Lezly Skate School and Founder and Chairman of the Central Park Dance Skater’s Association. Even the Rabbi was on skates that day.
Gothamist spoke with Lezly, who is also a Dancer, Actor and Choreographer, about skating and the tight-knit New York skating community.
You were a dancer for years before you began to skate. What is it about skating in particular that draws you to it?
Well, I don’t want to use that corny old line, it’s the most fun you can have with your clothes on, but it is. It’s a very heady experience. It’s that feeling of freedom. It’s almost like I’m flying. It has speed. It’s my dancing. It has the spinning that I love, where a dance spin would just be ending in skating it’s just the beginning … it’s an incredible experience. You feel like you’re floating.
You can lose yourself. I’ve heard this from a lot of people in the Skate Circle. They may have some kind of job where they’re working all week and they’re living for the weekends when they can come out and skate and lose themselves in the music. I feel that way too, but I have that release every day practicallly. I have it when I go to the rink. I have it when I go to the park, I have it when I teach.
How did you come to rollerskating from dance?
I actually skated as a kid, before I started to dance, the old kind of skates with wooden wheels and metal cleats, but I stopped. Not sure why. I just stopped. I picked it up again in 1979 when I was in my mid-40’s. Some friends dragged me to a roller skating rink. I didn’t skate that day, but I sat there and I was fascinated by the prospect of transferring my dance on to wheels. So I went out the next day after and found a place about three blocks away from my dance school and I rented some skates.
I was skating back to my studio and I found that I was able to do everything that I had been able to do when I was 16 years old which wasn’t a whole hell of a lot… I was able to skate forward and fast, I was able to do crossovers, but when I got to the corner I realized that I had completely forgotten how to stop. I ended up in traffic on my back.
I was able to get up real quick and get out of there without losing my life. That was good thing. But I could not for the life of me remember how I stopped as a kid. I still don’t remember.
Were you able to pick it up again pretty quickly?
With dance I’ve always been able to pick up a manual and learn it in a day or two. I started teaching dance when I was 17 – I lied about my age – and the dance studios would have a certain method and they’d ask me “Can you teach this?” and I’d ask, “Do you have a manual?” They’d give me the manual and I was able to go in there a day or two later and teach the class.
With skating it was that same proclivity I had for picking up a manual and learning from it. I got a book, it had 20 lessons in it. It was a good book. It really taught me what I needed to know. And I learned the 20 lessons in a couple days. Oh, and I had a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend who taught me how to skate backwards… that wasn’t in the book.
A month and a half later I was teaching. I still am.
You were teaching a month and a half later?
Yes, it was just beginners at first. And they’d come up to me afterwards and say, “Wow, you’re an incredible teacher. How long have you been teaching?” I’d say, “A month and a half…”
They must have been stunned. Do you enjoy teaching?
I love to teach. No matter what it is, whether it’s dance or skating. I really feel that I’m giving people something that they can have for the rest of their lives.
Passing on that feeling of freedom?
Absolutely. I feel that a lot of people lack that.
Which do you prefer? Rollerblades or Rollerskates?
I prefer quad skates. Traditional skates. They’re easier for me to dance on. More comfortable as far as my experience goes. I mean I’ve been skating on them since I was five years old.
Do they tend to be the skate of choice for dancers?
Yes. The balance of them is a lot more conducive to dancing because the front wheels are right under the balls of your foot. The rear wheels are right at the mid-point of your heel. There’s no protusion of wheels out in front of your foot or in back of your foot, so it’s contained under the central part of your foot. If a dancer were going to do a spin, they would do it on the ball of their foot. Not that they can’t do that on inlines [rollerblades]. There are people who do that and do it very well – but it’s a lot harder.
If someone comes down to the the Skate Circle is there any specific etiquette that person might want to be aware of?
You don’t smoke when you skate. You don’t carry a bag. You’ve got to be unencumbered to skate. It’s something that we require in Central Park. We don’t allow people to do those things in the Skate Circle.
Who’s the Father of Roller Disco?
That’s Bill Butler. He’s the Daddy. People have referred to me as the Godfather of Roller Disco, but I’ve never claimed to be that.
Why do you think people might think of you that way?
Well, first of all, I’ve taught over 15,000 people how to skate. Number two, I’m one of the leading proponents of roller disco in New York. And I’ve done a great deal for skating in New York. I was the Founder and Chairman of the Central Park Dance Skater’s Association which founded in 1995 as an answer to Mr. Giuliani’s quality of life issues.
How so? Skating as a quality of life issue?
They said that because of the crowd we drew it drew drug dealers and beer peddlers into the area. They had this little easel with a map of Central Park. The guy stood there with a pointer and he insisted that our area was the biggest crime area. That people were getting their pockets picked and bags stolen and drug dealers… it was all a lot of crap.
How do you know that?
We were there. We didn’t see anyone getting their pockets picked or bags stolen. Maybe there were drug dealers in the area when we weren’t there, but when we were there they were gone. It was just fallacious.
But the decibel level, that was the main thing. See, in the beginning you just had small boom boxes and they wouldn’t even be playing the same station. There were no tapes in those days. This was the late 70’s. One station would be playing at one end of the road and another station at the other end of the road. Finally, we were like, hey let’s play the same station, so we’d call stations back and forth and we’d have to turn the dial. And then a commercial would come on and they’d start switching the dial and find another radio station. Finally tapes came out and someone came out with a sound system and a car battery. Each year the sound system got bigger and bigger and by 1994 it was so big you could hear us on 5th Ave.
The police asked us to keep the decibel level down and the DJ’s – they didn’t care about that – they’’d see the police on the horizon and they’d turn it down; the police pass through and they’d turn it back up again. But they still heard it on 5th Avenue. Finally they came out one April day when we out there blasting our music and the captain of the Park Police came out and literally pulled the plug on our music.
They told us that we would never again be able to have amplified music in the park.
Never again, eh? Famous last words. Obviously, the Skate Circle is going stronger than ever. How were you able to overcome the City’s resistance?
Well we were already at that time a New York Institution. People used to come in droves to watch us skate so it wasn’t like we were unknown. When they pulled the plug, people were raging in the park. The spectators were going berserk. The only thing that that saved the Police Captain’s butt, very very strangely was one of the DJs, who was a very charismatic person, and he stepped in and said “Don’t put a hand on him.”
I stepped in and I said “Listen, anybody who wants to do something, let’s go up on the hill and see what we can do about bringing our music back.” And we got a small cadre of people who came up that hill and sat down with me and started to talk about how we were going to approach the city and the Park’s Department. And that was the birth of the Central Park Dance Skater’s Association, the CPDSA.
What was the approach you all decided on?
We got 8000 signatures on a petition, curried support from Mark Green and the Manhattan borough president, Ruth Messenger. Various politicians went to bat for us and finally we got to have another meeting with the Parks Department and the Police.
We presented them with a thirteen page proposal that they accepted and gave us one day to come back and show them what we could do in terms of keeping decibel level down and making sure there was no alcohol and drug dealing going down and making sure the place was environmentally clean. Hundreds of people would come, thousands, and they would make a mess. They also asked us to clean up an area that was well beyond our own area, which we agreed to.
They gave us an area of this road called the Dead Road which is one of the liveliest areas of Central Park that was the furthest away from the Sheep Meadow. Sheeps Meadow is a quiet area and the caveat was that they weren’t supposed to hear our music in the Sheep Meadow. Before we had a meter we’d have to skate back and forth for periodic sound checks. Eventually we got the meter and that solved that.
So, obviously the one day they gave you went well?
It went very very well. It was July 4, 1995. Independence Day. And that was our Independence Day too. They waited a week and then they gave us another day and we did just as well so they gave us a weekend and then every weekend. They gave us three hours, and then fours hours, and finally five hours. At the end of the season they were full of nothing but good things to say about us.
Now we are allowed, actually we buy the privilege, of being able to come out on four three-day weekends, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day and Columbus Day, and we can come out there -- we get a permit called a revenue permit -- and we’re allowed to do fundraising, get donations, sell memberships, T-shirts, hats, whatever it is we’re selling at the time.
It’s striking that you were able to get the likes of Mark Green and Ruth Messenger behind you. What do you see as the importance of the Skate Circle to New York City?
The Skate Circle is a magnificent tribute to racial tolerance. The demographics from this group are from every every religion, every race, every creed.
It’s a group that most of the time gets along very well with each other. We know each other very well. We’re a community. The New York skate community is a family. There are hundreds of skaters and I think I must know three quarters of them by name. We’re a very close knit group. We work together, we go to each other’s homes, to each other’s birthday parties, we’ve… wait, I have to read you a quote.
John Tierney from the New York Times once came down to do an article about us – he skated with us for several weeks -- and the point was he wanted to show that people live in this city, they live in the same building or have the same activities but they don’t really know each other. They may know somebody’s name, but they pass each other like ships in the night. And Tierney wrote:
The best image of the City’s diversity is not an abstraction. It is alive in Central Park and called the Skate Circle..
I always thought that was a nice little piece He really captured what the Skate Circle is to me. It stands as a beautiful shining example of people who come from all over the world – which they do – to see us, to see that this is a group of people who get along like the rest of the world should get along. It’s a microcosm of what the world should be like.
Ed. Note: The Skate Circle forms every Saturday, Sunday and Holiday from 2:30 to 6:30pm from mid-April through Halloween. The CPDSA Skate Circle is located mid-park at the foot of the bandshell area. You can find them by entering the park at 72nd street and walking along the 72nd street transverse toward the center of the park. Follow your ears and listen for the dance music.